I had a friend when I was a pre-teen who was “scouted” at our local mall. Just as you can imagine, a twitchy man, probably wearing a trench coat, approached her and asked some flattering yet oddly invasive questions about how much makeup she was wearing, what her fitness routine was, and if he could have her contact information. This was at the advent of the “stranger danger” era and, as much as my friend wanted to be a model, she was quick to pass on the situation. Maybe the safer move, but another chance was never extended to her after that. This was in the late 90’s, before YouTube and Myspace. Without the tools and know-how to market herself, her dreams of becoming a model relied solely on going to the sparse open calls our small community offered, and she was relegated to local mall fashion shows and car dealership ads.
A few years later, by the time she tucked that dream away for good, technology and social media were just emerging as a means to self-market. YouTube could help turn that talent show rendition of “Hallelujah” into a Billboard Music Award. Your knack for thrift store shopping and photography could make you an early influencer on social media, a profitable job that didn’t exist a few years before. If your manuscript is rejected by all the major publishing houses, just release it yourself as an e-book. And instead of doling out free makeovers at the MAC counter in Macy’s, just turn your bubbly personality and love of sparkly eye shadow into a lucrative online tutorial job. We now lived in a world where “you” are the product, where “you” are the service. And if your product and service is meant to reach the masses, then “you” need to be able to sell “you” effectively.
Many might not remember it, but before Justin Bieber was an international star and juvenile delinquent, he was a viral, piano-playing sensation with millions of views on his channels. By the time he was picked up by a manger, Bieber already had a very loyal fan base. He, in essence, did a lot of the heavy lifting before he was ever even signed to a label. Tori Kelly is another artist that comes to mind. She tried the more conventional approaches to the music industry, even a stint on American Idol, but in the end, she decided to write, record, and produce her on EP, on her own label, from her bedroom. The sheer will to release music without the support of the established music industry lets you know how serious she was and how much has changed since the early aughts when she would have had no choice but to play open mic nights at a coffee house to get her name out there.
Today, many managers and agents prefer established social media influencers and YouTube stars over the cold call of a mall scouting. Artists are no longer expected to be naive balls of clay for the entertainment world to mold into something marketable. They want artists who have the drive to succeed and who already have an audience loyal enough to follow them to the major leagues. Moral of the story: don’t be afraid to turn “you” into a household brand.